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Looking to the Founders: Be Willing to Adjust Your Political Views

I always love seeing quotes from founding father Thomas Jefferson; especially, any about Jefferson’s hatred for public debt.

Jefferson’s overall ideology was one of a smaller federal government with little to no debt, but a deeper look into Jefferson’s political life reveals that he had a characteristic that is becoming less and less common — he was willing to change his political views when necessary (and sometimes when only expedient).

In the end, Jefferson’s flexibility allowed him to “go out on a limb” on a gamble and finance the single biggest purchase America had ever made, and should serve as a lesson to us now about putting aside ideology and doing what is right for the nation.

Jefferson was one of the last living Founding Fathers. Most of the Founders died in their 60s and 70s, but Jefferson’s long life gave him the chance to see how their “political experiment” turned out.

Jefferson remained interested in politics until the very end — most notably exchanging letters with his long-time political nemesis John Adams during the last 15 years of their lives.

By 1812, only 10 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were still alive. America was now being run by a new generation with just as varied ideals as the Founders. The correspondence between Jefferson and Adams served as a reflection on politics, religion, and life itself.

While reflective in later life, Jefferson was very much deliberate and calculating throughout his active political career — all of this taken together resulted in a Thomas Jefferson with different and — at times — contradictory political positions.

Jefferson was a longtime foe of banks and public debt. Throughout his career he would write many scathing letters and opinions warning of the dangers of credit and public debt:

I own it to be my opinion, that good will arise from the destruction of our credit. I see nothing else which can restrain our disposition to luxury, and to the change of those manners which alone can preserve republican government. As it is impossible to prevent credit, the best way would be to cure its ill effects by giving an instantaneous recovery to the creditor. This would be reducing purchases on credit to purchases for ready money. A man would then see a prison painted on everything he wished, but had not ready money to pay for. — Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1786

Government spending during Jefferson’s presidency made up a tiny fraction of the total economy — $8 million with a GDP of $487 million in 1803 (less than 2%) — but the young Republic still had over $77 million in public debt.

However, even with this modest spending, Jefferson saw two competing forces: the endless wants of the federal government and the ability (or more importantly an inability) to repay debts.

Jefferson had only been in office for 2 years, but already had to deal with enormous problems relating to domestic and international trade.

American ships and sailors were being seized by the Barbary Pirates, which ultimately led Jefferson to send a squadron of ships to the Mediterranean. Even worse, hostility between the major European powers was still spilling over into the New World.

Almost half of American goods were transported on the Mississippi River to market, with most needing passage through New Orleans to reach the East Coast and foreign markets. Spain revoked American shipping access through New Orleans in 1798 and there was a strong contention in western states that New Orleans should be taken by force.

Although American companies were allowed access to New Orleans in 1801 — with the French regaining at least partial control — Jefferson was alarmed and worried that it would become “a point of eternal friction with us.”

Federalists preferred stronger ties with Britain, with some believing we should just take Louisiana by force.
Jefferson sent Robert Livingston and James Monroe to France to negotiate some kind of purchase or lease of New Orleans. Monroe had been formally expelled from France on his last mission — Jefferson wanted to make a point of his resolve on this issue.

But Monroe also had a different secret mission. If negotiations failed in Paris, he was to go to London and negotiate stronger ties with England to protect American interests and shipping.

U.S. ambassadors caught cash-strapped Napoleon in a selling mood — his plans for Europe needed access to immediate, hard cash. Because of this, a treaty was signed purchasing the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million.

While the Senate approved the treaty by a 24 to 7 vote, it was not without domestic opposition.

Federalists preferred stronger ties with Britain, with some believing we should just take Louisiana by force. Jeffersonians doubted the constitutionality of the purchase and the backlash from expanding the power of the federal government.  And all sides had the issue of slavery in the new territory in the back of their minds.

House Majority Leader John Randolph, a member of Jefferson’s party, led a movement that opposed funding the treaty. While this measure was narrowly defeated (by 2 votes), it demonstrates the dissent that Jefferson had created within his own party by making this decision.

In the end, France was paid a down payment of $3 million in gold, forgiven of $3.75 million in loans, and the remaining $8.25 million was financed by two European banks.

Jefferson expanded the debt he so badly hated and didn’t live to see it paid off. It would take the U.S. 20 years to retire the debt, with $8 million in interest added to the total cost.

History has been generally kind to Jefferson, with most polls listing him in the top 5 of all U.S. presidents. While Jefferson himself was worried about the ramifications of his actions, history sees them as generally successful.

What Jefferson did was create a specific policy regarding American expansion and trade through the Mississippi and beyond. What he didn’t do was cling to his lifelong philosophy of small government, small debt, and limited federal involvement and pretend that the problem didn’t exist.

In modern politics, we have two parties that are rigidly entrenched in defending a set of philosophies, with little room to compromise or create public policy that could be used as a vehicle for further American development.

Sometimes we need to look at what our forefathers did more than what they said. In the end, history usually judges only the outcome of our actions, not our intentions, hopes, or dreams.

Using Jefferson’s quotes on the national debt in effort to “get us back on track” only ignores the fact that the American path has been one of seizing opportunities and compromise — something we need to quickly regain.